DOWNEAST is a documentary about what sounds like one of the most boring possible subjects to put on film: rebuilding a destitute fish cannery. However, directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin manage to incorporate politics, economics, and a large dollop of human interest into their 76-minute film. Though it’s not without significant problems, DOWNEAST nonetheless brings light to the desperate economic situation this country is still in, despite what pundits would have us believe, via a corner of the map—Downeast Maine—that is practically unknown to most everyone south of the New Hampshire border.
Redmon and Sabin focus their story on Antonio Bussone, an Italian expat who runs a lobster company near Boston and decides to buy, refurbish and open a factory in remote Gouldsboro, Maine, in order to sell canned lobster meat. 128 of the tiny town’s residents—most of whom are women over 65—were employed at the factory before it shut down in 2010, and they’re all eager to get back to work. Retirement isn’t an option Downeast; like most rural places in the country, the economic situation in Gouldsboro is beyond bleak—it’s do or die.
When Bussone rides into town with big plans but not a lot of capital, he applies for federal grants and loans to get his factory up and running. The moments of highest drama in DOWNEAST come from footage of Gouldsboro town meetings (a practice that may be unfamiliar to those not from New England), in which residents urge their town Selectmen to approve Bussone’s application for the grant money. The film implies—heavily—that the Selectmen’s reluctance to award Bussone the money, and allow him to reinstitute many of the residents’ jobs, stems from their vested interest in keeping him out of the lucrative lobster market. Though Redmon and Sabin don’t quite demonize anyone, Bussone’s image is treated with kid gloves while the reputations of some of the lifelong Gouldsboro residents are, at least implicitly, impugned.
As a native Mainer, I think I may have some insight into this situation that Redmon and Sabin, despite their best intentions, are lacking. Number one: Mainers are incredibly suspicious of outsiders—anyone not born and raised in the state is referred to as being “from away.” The simple fact of Bussone’s outsider status would be enough to make him seem suspicious in the eyes of many, regardless of their connection to local fishing interests. Bussone’s impetus to start his factory in Gouldsboro is also never fully explained, and neither is the source of his startup money, though he alludes to having mortgaged various properties in the US and Italy. With the story hinging on the awarding of a few hundred thousand dollars in federal funds on a multi-million dollar project, Redmon and Sabin would do well to explain their subject’s financial situation more thoroughly. (Incidentally, as of April 19th, Bussone is being sued by his Boston bank for $3.4 million.)
The best parts of DOWNEAST are precisely those that focus on the native Gouldsboro folks, especially the incredibly feisty women—several over 70 years old and still going strong. All they want is to get back to work, to make an honest day’s wage and feel like they’re contributing to something. The Yankee work ethic may be legendary, but these ladies take it to a whole new level. One brags about having worked at the old factory for thirteen years straight, often seven days a week, before she took a sick day—quipping simply, “the job comes first.” Another sadly remarks about her lack of health insurance, despite her having put in 44 years of labor at the former cannery. The awful unfairness of the economic downturn hits you square in the gut and makes you want to scream, or maybe race downtown to join the Occupy protestors. If ever there were anyone deserving of a handout, it’s these folks—though, of course, they’d staunchly refuse to take it.
My main(e) gripe with DOWNEAST is its reluctance to show the full, complicated picture of the situation it’s portraying. It may be easier for the audience to understand and care about the story the film is trying to tell if Bussone is portrayed very sympathetically and the members of the town council aren’t, but that doesn’t do justice to the nuances of reality. For instance, the filmmakers neglect to mention the fact that Dana Rice, head selectman of Gouldsboro and made out (albeit gently) as the villain of the piece, actually recused himself from the vote on the federal grant funds because of his obvious competing interest in the local lobster trade. He’s made to look a bit of a fool, prattling on in one scene about how Eastern Maine should secede from the rest of the state, because that makes the film’s story easier to understand.
At only an hour and a quarter, Redmon and Sabin could have spent an extra ten or fifteen minutes fleshing out the nitty-gritty details of their story without sacrificing its pacing or emotional impact. Indeed, if someone made a film that accurately depicted how incredibly difficult it is to create jobs in this country, leaving out none of the financial, logistical or political machinations involved, we might all be able to get a handle on how to really jumpstart the economy. DOWNEAST is compelling enough, and as a Mainer I’m always delighted to see the state depicted as something more than a land of postcard aesthetics or the backdrop to a Stephen King story. But Redmon and Sabin make the mistake of simplifying their story at the expense of factual accuracy, and that’s enough to make me, for one, lose interest in what they’re trying to say.
© Lita Robinson 2012